What did I hear?
Relating to the post-it topics previously blogged about, here are some of the quotes and observations that led to those topics;
My Lack is About…
Ownership and citizenship. There’s an anecdote I’ve heard which probably summarises it nicely;
A councilor was canvassing around some flats. A woman answered the door to him and when asked if she had any issues or problems, swung the door back and forth at him. It squeaked. She pointed in at her husband in the sitting room and said “His heart is broken, he’s up and down to the council everyday about it and they haven’t done a thing.”
Before you judge the woman in the story (whether real or fictional) think about every time you’ve complained to your landlord to fix something in your rented house; every time you’ve seen something wrong and said “Someone should do something about that” and not been that someone; every time you’ve ignored something because it wasn’t your problem. It’s easy to demand something be done by someone else if you feel it is outside of your remit, or that you’re not allowed to intervene. If you’ve been told you can’t decorate or perform DIY in your house, perhaps the natural assumption is that you shouldn’t oil the hinges either.
My Core Thesis
But where did that come from?
But what is the underlying ambition behind the motto? It implies that if there was ‘obedience’ to the law, if everyone followed the rules, harm would be minimised and everyone would be happy (if you read ‘happy city’ as ‘happy populous’).
If this were the literal case, if everyone obeyed the law and no more, then the city would certainly run more smoothly and no doubt be more pleasant overall. But shouldn’t we set our ambitions higher? If a person falls on the street and hurts themselves, there is no legal obligation to aid them. Can we go above and beyond the demands of law? If instead of being told to ‘obey’, we were encouraged to be active, to create, to help?
I propose a new motto for Dublin city;
Feel free to correct my Latin.
Having responsibility means having a duty of care towards, or control over, someone or some thing. Coming from the same root as ‘response’, the word ‘responsibility’ as a concept is inextricably bound up with notions of control – personal or collective – and also entails a degree of action (response).
Just to reiterate:
Responsibility and control are two sides of the same coin. They feed into each other cyclically.
The net result of this cycle is a sense of ‘ownership’. Ownership is not something that can be bestowed on someone (outside of the literal sense of ‘owning’ something). As a concept it is merely the side effect of someone (or a group) having agency (control) and a perceived duty of care (responsibility).
For someone (or a group) to take ‘ownership’ of something, certain factors have to be present;
All these factors must be present (and usually in order, from bottom up). If any are missing, it is Somebody Else’s Problem.
In the above diagram, “Permission” can also be seen as falling into “Control” – as in, ‘it is potentially under your control’.
Some really everyday scenarios could be the following;
So, if we examine the six criteria for active ownership a little more closely:
“Can you IDENTIFY the problem”
To solve any problem, one must first be able to consciously and objectively recognise it. In addition it must be spotted early so it can be addressed before it becomes unmanageable and related problems must also be identified so that the solution works. It is also important to address whether the problem is a symptom or a cause. If it is the former, then the underlying causes must be followed back until you can identify at which step in the chain you have the capability to intervene. Something may annoy you for years without you ever becoming aware of what the actual problem is. We simply, unthinkingly tolerate a bad situation because we are not mindful enough. A problem arises between what “should be” and what “is” and it is often difficult to identify what “should be”.
“Do you ACTIVELY want to solve it?”
You may identify a problem, you may have permission to address it, but if you don’t care, why would you ever do something? My bedroom is a mess, I’m certainly permitted to clean it, but once it stays below a certain volume of clutter, I don’t care and hence don’t tidy. Apathy can be more pernicious than simple tolerance of a situation, however. It is a serious social problem when considered as inherent passivity. The causes vary from group to group and may stem from enabled passivity (learned helplessness), consumerism (the demand for instant gratification), relinquishing control (submissiveness), generally not being held accountable for your actions and a thousand other reasons, depending on the individual or society in question. Someone may not tidy their room because their mother does it for them so they don’t have to, because they allow someone else to do it, because nobody else ever puts pressure on them to do so (because it is not a shared space). To solve the problem of apathy, you must first discover what the root of it is in a certain scenario.
Do you feel you have (or can you get) PERMISSION?
Permission comes in three flavours;
Overt permission is when it is obvious that you are permitted to perform a certain action; it is directly stated. It may be that you can park in a car park or skate in a skate park. It is obviously impossible to list all of the activities you may perform in a given space because the possibilities are infinite. Overt permission does not rely on verbal or written signs. It can be communicated through objects. For example, it is possible to sit on any flat, solid surface, but the presence of a bench states “This is a place for sitting”. Our society tends (at least verbally) toward the opposite tack – listing the activities you are not allowed to perform (No dogs, no smoking, no ball games, etc.), because when it comes to the fuzzy middle ground of things you may or may not do (where it is unclear which activity is permitted or not) damage limitation (forbidding certain activities) is preferable to encouragement (stating which you may do). This approach is endemic in Ireland, leading to people generally presuming that a given activity would be prohibited (following from the precedent of the “No”s). We could describe this as tacit non-permission (more on that below).
One particular project which plays with the idea of overt permission is “Freezone” by Bosch & Fjord, which displayed signs around Copenhagen suggesting certain activities in given areas. For example, meditation areas, prayer zones, picnic spots and kissing areas.
The creators state that these signs “created free zones where one was allowed to deviate from conformity” but I have my doubts. It may have just created a localised conformity to slightly unusual behaviours and it is questionable (though not impossible) whether the participants realised that their activities could be performed anywhere and not just in these temporary zones.
Tacit permissions are given when a precedent is set somehow. For example, although it is obvious that you may park in a car park, on many streets it is not clear. In cases like this, people will generally look to see if someone else has performed the same action before doing it themselves. Tacit permissions are about setting a precedent or implying a permission somehow. This is dependent on at least one person deciding that permission is irrelevant.
Irrelevant permission doesn’t really exist. Ostensibly it describes a situation where someone decides that permission for a certain action is irrelevant to them. For example, someone on a bike may break a red light to make a left turn because the risk is minimal and the reward is good; the rule regarding red lights in this situation is irrelevant to them. However, in these cases, social mores are extremely important. While one may break a formal rule, they have tacit permission from their peers. Graffiti is an obvious example. It may seem that permission as to whether or not you may graffiti somewhere is irrelevant to the practitioner, but in actuality is fraught with complicated social rules which vary group to group and individual to individual.
“Do you KNOW how to solve it? Do you have the RESOURCES to solve it?”
What knowledge and resources you need are dependent on the particular problem, but for big issues, you will often need to outsource to some degree. A problem cannot be solved if you don’t know the right way to go about it. If you want to make use of a certain space for example, you may protest to get use of the space to no avail. It may be because you have gone about solving the problem in the wrong way. Research, mentors, advisers and sponsors may all be necessary. Knowing what the first step is is often the most difficult thing. Relating to the previous step, you may feel that acquiring permission is theoretically possible, but knowing how to go about it relates to this step.
“Is it WORTH it?”
It may be worth your while to perform a certain task because the outcome alone is reward enough. In other cases, there may have to be additional benefit. Risk, liability and effort must be offset by benefit, tangible or otherwise. Reward may take the form of the solution of the problem, personal pride, sense of wellbeing, cash or other hard benefits. For an action to be worth performing, risk or effort must be minimised and reward enhanced.